Mr George Thomson (1757-1851)
of Edinburgh has an important niche
in musical history. His claim is down
to a long term project he devised between
1791 and 1841. You could try this one
out with musical friends in a quiz for
the erudite. I expect that it will stump
them. Let me put you out of your misery.
He it was who came up with the idea
of asking several leading composers
of the era to arrange Scottish, Irish
and Welsh folksongs for voice and piano
or for voice with a trio. These were,
after all, good tunes which might have
disappeared unless given a helping hand
into fame. And what a collection of
composers heeded the call: Josef Haydn,
Ignaz Pleyel and Beethoven whose arrangements
are perhaps the best known. There were
also Weber, Hummel and the Englishman,
Henry Bishop. In addition we have Leopold
Kozeluch. Beethoven, like Kozeluch,
set texts such as ‘Duncan Grey’ and
‘Ye banks and ye braes’ and the comparison
is sobering. Kozeluch made these arrangements
circa 1795 in the style of the classical
period; perhaps Haydn is his model.
Beethoven, in the last years of his
life, kicked over the traces even his
folksong arrangements and struck out
boldly into the world of what we now
call Early Romanticism.
If you have heard of
Kozeluch before it may be as one of
the flourishing Bohemian school who
aided the development of the Symphony.
He also wrote five piano concertos,
chamber music and several operas whilst
living in Vienna as a piano virtuoso.
He was then, a significant figure in
European music although his work now
is almost totally obscured. His tally
in this particular genre comes to no
less than 110 Scottish folksong arrangements.
In large part these draw the lyrics
from Robbie Burns and from one or two
minor figures of the period. The texts
are occupied with the subjects of lost
love or new love or nationalist themes,
the beauty of Scotland, its mountains
That the music as aimed
at the domestic, middle-class, amateur
market is obvious although I suspect
that, with the Beethoven arrangements,
the instrumentalists must have had quite
a shock. In the case of Kozeluch these
arrangements are all straightforward.
Each piece has a piano introduction
and sections between the verses. The
left-hand part tends to be written either
as an Alberti bass or as broken chords.
The voice part is almost always doubled
by the right-hand of the piano and could
I suppose, be successful even without
the voice. The harmonies are simple
and founded on basic triadic formations.
The booklet gives us
a brief essay and all of the nineteen
texts … thank goodness, I cry. The Dutch
baritone Henk Lauwers, now in his early
fifties, has a fine voice. Reading his
biography in the booklet we find that
he has an excellent CV as an international
performer, including in his extensive
repertoire ‘Eight Songs for a Mad King’
(Maxwell-Davies – now that would be
interesting). However his diction is
very poor. This, coupled with the Scottish
‘brogue’ demanded by the poetry, makes
it impossible for the listener to understand
most of the words. It’s not just that
words are mispronounced it’s also that
vowels can be distorted and consonants
are quite often inaudible. Even with
the texts in front of me I sometimes
couldn’t quite make out where I was.
Friends who heard a few tracks felt
exactly the same and after, say three
songs, could not handle any more.
The fortepiano used
for this recording is an attractive
instrument after a Schott model of 1830.
It delivers quite a warm sound which
suits the music, although by the time
we come to the last two tracks it seems
to be losing its tuning. Diane Anderson
is a very sensitive player and persuades
it into a warm legato line.
You will have gathered
that I cannot recommend this disc unless
this is repertoire in which you have
a special interest. In a medium where
the texts are vital these performances
fail to match expectations. Furthermore
although the melodies are fresh and
delightful the arrangements themselves
are often rather second-rate.